North Carolina’s outer banks jut into the Atlantic like a bent toothpick. Ranking among the most susceptible areas to storm damage in the United States, the region has been pummeled and reshaped by countless tropical depressions.
The easternmost point along this anorexic chain of barrier islands is Rodanthe, an unincorporated community with less than 300 year-round residents. Essentially, Rodanthe is a sandbar with a single two-lane highway running down the middle of it, not unlike a strip of raspberry jam pressed into a row of shortbread Christmas cookies. And perched on either side are cavernous beach ‘cottages’ with bedrooms and balconies and ocean views galore, lofted above the landscape on thin wooden stilts.
So famous is Rodanthe for the ravaging weather incessantly battering its beaches, that it became a springboard for a stomach-turning Nicholas Sparks book, Nights in Rodanthe, and the equally tract-wrenching movie of the same name. Here’s the ten-second digest: two people who have no business starting a relationship have to weather a storm inside a famed Rodanthe bed and breakfast. And they fall in love. Gross.
The only redemption of this lovestruck detritus is the backdrop of this beachfront outpost, portrayed accurately as a rugged, salt-weathered, tightly-knit community that shrugs its shoulders at norms most of America seems to embrace. For this reason, I am delighted to find an excuse to visit Rodanthe each time my family-in-law gathers for their annual reunion in the tourist anchorage of Nags Head, 15 miles to the north.
On this particular morning, I set out on my newly-built commuter bicycle, a 1980s Bianchi Nyala, painted please-don’t-hit-me green, built up with mid-grade mountain bike components, and adorned with a pair of tidy mustache handlebars that I harvested from a 1960s Schwinn Collegiate. I whoosh down the famed NC 12 highway, cutting through mile after mile of unscathed national seashore, and head yet again to the charming, isolated community that has captured my fascination and fondness.
Rodanthe has exactly one store, at which the following items are offered for sale: gasoline, wine, slushies, rental bicycles, seashells by the pound, postcards, household cleaners, beach towels, and coffee. A general store with a sand-swept twist, I can never resist a quick stop for a bite of something yummy and a taste of local life.
This sticky Sunday morning already has the whitewashed porch smelling of cigar smoke. Only a couple of early-risers amble into the shop, one for a copy of the Virginia Sentinel, and another for package of fly paper. A permed, graying woman of 65 grills egg sandwiches at the back of the store, slapping orange squares of American cheese atop each one and sliding the resulting melty goodness between fluffy halves of freshly baked biscuits.
Shellie punches the cost of my breakfast into the register. The total is $3.43, tax included. She is seated at a round, brown-cushioned barstool, elbow on the counter and palm supporting her chin. She apologizes that she is barely awake, saying, “I went out for a friend’s birthday party last night and had a few too many. You know how that goes…”
Less than 15 minutes later, I pedal Rodanthe into the rearview. Rolling, silvery sand dunes flank the highway once again as I bound northward toward a morning of happy hubbub with the family-in-law. One day, I will linger long enough in Rodanthe to converse with the locals, take in a meal or two, and maybe even sleep in the same bed and breakfast where Richard Gere made saps everywhere believe in the possibility of impossible love.
But until then, mornings in Rodanthe will have to do.